Four-Time Obstacle Race Champion Amelia Boone on Mastering the Art of Suffering
“I’m not the strongest. I’m not the fastest. But I’m really good at suffering.”
Dubbed “The Queen of Pain,” Amelia Boone is a corporate attorney at Apple by day and an obstacle endurance racer by night. She signed up for her first Tough Mudder race at age 28 when she realized she couldn’t do a single pull-up.
Since that day, she became obsessed with getting stronger and went on to become a 4-time world champion and one of the most decorated obstacle racers in history — all while working full-time at Apple.
To find time for training outside of the regular workday, Boone began waking up at 4 a.m, hitting the trails for several hours of running, and getting to the office by 7 a.m.
"I've always found that I'm most productive when I have multiple balls in the air," Boone said in an interview with The Profile. "It's that cliché saying that if you want something done, give it to a busy person. That's exactly how I operate."
In 2019, Boone ran Big's Backyard Ultra, an infamous event in which runners have one hour to complete a 4.167-mile loop. Then, they do it over and over again, until there’s only one person left standing.
"I love the mental aspect of racing, and so much of [Big's Backyard Ultra] was mental," she says. "It's very much just about focusing on getting through that next loop in front of you."
To conquer the mind, Boone realized that she needed to first master the art of suffering. "When you put yourself through situations that are very hard, and you do that on purpose, it helps you to deal with the messiness in life that is not voluntary," she says.
The same year, Boone suffered a fourth stress fracture, and it re-surfaced old wounds that she had tried to keep under wraps. She wrote a blog post called "The Recovery I Needed," in which she said, "The hardest things to fix are the things that we don’t want to admit to ourselves."
Even though it was difficult, Boone made a stunning admission: She had spent the last 20 years privately battling an eating disorder.
"I was diagnosed with anorexia when I was 16 years old," she says. "I was hospitalized, and I was very, very sick. I went through a period of my life in high school and college where I was in and out of treatment, and at some point, I decided that I didn't want to be identified as the 'sick girl' anymore."
Boone shut that chapter of her life, thinking that was a form of recovery. Years later, she was no longer labeled a "sick girl." Now, she was a decorated, championship-winning athlete.
"Unfortunately, eating disorders are very sneaky illnesses," Boone says. "Over the years, things started creeping back in and old habits and old thought patterns came back."
After yet another injury, she had to come to terms that there was something wrong. It wasn't her training, it wasn't her routine, it wasn't her running style. It was the eating disorder.
"I finally had to take a hard look at myself and say, 'I'm 35 years old, and I still have an eating disorder, and I need to fix this because it's keeping me from doing what I love to do,'" she says. "It's keeping me from racing and it's keeping me from really engaging in life."
In this wide-ranging interview, Boone and I discuss developing mental toughness, balancing rest with challenging yourself, getting off "the merry-go-round of self-flagellation," and her advice on how we can stress-test ourselves in order to become more resilient.
(Below are highlights of our interview, but I encourage you to listen and watch to the full interview here)
...On why voluntary suffering can help prepare you for involuntary suffering:
“The one thing suffering has taught me is that everything is fleeting. Pain is fleeting, feelings are fleeting, how you feel in this moment is going to change. So when I've been through heartbreak, when I've been through breakups, when I've been through job changes, I tell myself, 'I'm really in it right now. I'm really in it. I'm having a really bad time. Life sucks.' But then I tell myself, 'Focus on what's in front of you, and things will slowly start to change. It may not be immediate. It may be longer than you want it to be.’ But I remember that through racing where it's just you'll go through ups and downs, and you can't always predict those.”
...On 'making friends' with pain:
“I don't want to see pain ever as an adversary. Pain is your friend. Pain gives you cues. Pain tells you what you need to focus on. Most of the time during races, I will say, OK my foot hurts. So I'll literally talk to the different body parts: 'OK foot, you kind of hurt right now.' I think that if I personify pain, I think of it as separate from me. And if I make friends with it, then it is just something there to guide me on and to teach me.”
...On mental toughness:
“I used to think that being mentally tough was showing zero signs of vulnerability, showing zero emotions. I wanted so much in life to just be that person that's a stone-cold killer, who had no emotions and thought everything through logically. But that just wasn't me even though I really tried to be that person.
“Now, for me, being mentally tough is to notice everything — to notice and not judge all of my emotions — and then to be able to react to those appropriately and move through the pain without shutting it out.”
...On why she doesn't want to turn her passion into her profession:
“I actually don't think your profession should be your passion. I don't believe in that at all. I like being an attorney, but being an attorney's not my passion. I prefer to have my passion as something that is not tied to whether I can pay my mortgage or put food on the table because I can take more risks in my passion, and I can really go for it. And then I have the stability of the profession that enables me to do my passion.”
...On the merry-go-round of self-flagellation:
“The merry-go-round of self-flagellation is my favorite thing because I rode that merry-go-round for several years. It was getting injured, and then getting upset with myself that I got injured. It's a secondary emotion. What I learned is that you're angry, then you're angry at yourself for being angry, so you're ashamed of that, and then you get in this vicious shame spiral.
“The only way out of it is to look at yourself with compassion. Instead of being angry at yourself, give love and self-compassion. One of the turning points for me was realizing how easy it is for me to forgive others for their faults, but I could never show that toward myself. It's been this active practice of learning to forgive myself. I tell myself this all the time: 'You are doing the best you could with the tools you had at the time.' I have better tools now, so I can do better now.”
...On getting started with endurance races:
"If it's a motivational issue, set yourself up so that you cannot fail. Sleep in your running clothes so that when you get up the next morning, you're already in your running clothes. I thought about it like brushing my teeth, and doing that over and over and over again, and it'll just become something that's part of your life, and a habit.
"If you're getting into endurance sports or running, recognize that it's going to suck at first. Go slow. I think most people start and give up within a few weeks. But stick it out and understand that it's not going to be this linear path. You're going to feel a little better, then it's going to feel awful, so like anything in life, it's going to go up and down. But if you stick it out, once you get over that hump, you'll eventually see it through."